Sunday, August 31, 2008

china dispatch #18 - odds

A few brief notes on our China experience:

Corn. We were driving along in the countryside one day, and went through a little village. We had to swerve to avoid the corn in the street.

Yes, corn in the street. Tons and tons of corn, not on ears, not sheathed in its green shucks, but zillions of separate kernels of corn, sitting in the street getting a suntan. Is that how they roast and dry the kernels? In streets?

Donkey Meat. That was advertised on a sign we saw. In retrospect, what's weird is that we think it's weird. After all, Chinese and Japanese people had all sorts of derogatory names for our ancestors who came over here reeking of cow's meat and cow's milk. Yuck!

Poop sticks. I guess that's what they call them. Our friend was telling us that he'd had his stools examined for some illness, and that they had given him a small cup and a couple of what looked like metal chopsticks. He couldn't figure out what was wanted, until someone explained (what to them must have seemed obvious): that you must defecate into the squatty-potty, and then pick out your stool with the chopsticks to put it into the cup.

Blueberry potato chips. The rule is that when you see something this odd you have to try it. So, I bought a package of Lay's brand potato chips, blueberry flavor. They were absolutely delicious. Just sweet enough to be sweet, but still snacky rather than candyish. Like unbuttered blueberry muffins. They also had a bit of a tingle to them, as if the makers had included some of that delicious numbing spice that you get on lamb kebabs. When will blueberry potato chips make it in the US?

Parterre. That's the term for all the gardenny sculptury stuff that's been put up all over Beijing in honor of the Olympics. I'd thought "parterre" referred to a theater balcony, and it does, but it also refers to ornamental greenery. Tiananmen Square is filled with it, which makes Tiananmen Square both festively beautiful and completely unsuitable for staging protests.

Blue skies. We'd thought they would go the way of mandatorily-uplifting songs played on the subways. But, to our surprise, neither has gone away. Today's sky was clear as can be, and brilliant blue. And, as a bonus, our hottest days are behind us. Things are cooling off quite nicely.

Friday, August 22, 2008


We were listening to the Toto song "Rosanna," after which Catherine was in the mood for more and flipped to "Hold The Line," Toto's first hit song. As the guitar solo screamed away, I pointed out that Steve Lukather was one of the first to bring life to the Whammy Bar, which is a little lever on the bridge of a guitar that varies the pitch, allowing you to do an exaggerated vibrato. It's a sound that defined the hard rock of the Eighties.

She said, "You know what would be sad? If Steve Lukather's son were playing on that bridge right when there was a whole boat full of people passing under."

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

china dispatch #17 - medals

I showed up at our drop-dead-amazing club tonight in time to have a puff at a cigar before starting. NBC had rented out the place for a big shindig tonight. Some guy came over and said, "Do you mind if I ask who you are with, are you with NBC?" I said that I was with the band; he asked me if I could cigar somewhere else because they were getting the food ready.

I was glad to. And especially after I saw the layout: row after row of white wine, red wine, champagne, and Lantinis (the bar's specialty that has little to do with the martini and is really just a delicious raspberry drink); table after table of sushi, jiaozi, spring rolls, breaded fish, skewered meat, buttery sea bass (the best I've ever had), fresh fruit, mysterious desserts, and on and on.

Then the people showed up. It eventually got really crowded with NBC people. I didn't see any celebrity faces, just tons of folk who work one way or the other with the network. After the band was done, I plunged into the crowd, and immediately noticed several extremely tall women with red ribbons around their necks.

It was the women's rowing team. I eventually got to meet all of them who were there (Eleanor Logan, Lindsay Shoop, Anna Goodale, and two others), shake their hands, tell them they did us proud, and congratulate them on their accomplishment. Lindsay Shoop offered to let me examine her gold medal. Cool! It was much heavier even than I'd figured. On one side is the classic woman-with-torch that they always have on it, and on the other side is the stuff belonging to that year, so it was the Beijing logo and it was inlaid with a ring of jade — white jade for the gold, typical green for the silver (Slytherin colors!), and a dark dark green for the bronze. I told a couple of the gals that they were the best in the world, actually the best: that's not their mom's opinion, they really are verifiably the best. One mentioned that she'd seen rowing in the Olympics as a kid, but forgot all about it till she started up six years ago. Now she's a gold medallist! She still seemed a bit dizzy at the thought. Pretty dang cool.

A men's bronze medallist was also there: Dan Walsh. We had a nice chat, and without any provocation he just took his medal off and gave it to me to look at. Wow! I took it and said, "Wow! ... Wow! Really?" He said, "Yeah, it's not just mine, it's yours too; it belongs to America."

What I said was, "That's really really cool. Thanks. This is amazing." What I didn't say was:

It does belong to America, but only in the poetic sense. In the actual sense, I didn't do diddly for this. I didn't wake up at goodness-knows-when and abstain from tacos and work and work and work to earn this. The fact is, Dan, that very few people — not even your parents, really — will ever know what you did to earn this medal. Very few people have ever wanted anything that badly, or worked that hard for something, in their lives. Only a tiny, blessed group have any idea how much this cost, or how much you gave to achieve this thing. So, enjoy this moment, and allow our pitiful ignorant Wow to stand in for the great "Well Done" that echoes through the Real World, unheard by us.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

china dispatch #16 - fashion show

I mentioned earlier that I'd wanted to get some suits made. I went to one tailor and eventually got what I wanted, but only after protracted haggling. It was obvious this person wasn't part of the best tradition. On reflection, I do notice that the tailor's shop is in a place that caters to quite a number of people who won't be in Beijing for too long. Meanwhile, the one I just got some work back from is located in the heart of the diplomatic district, and has incentive to get repeat customers. That might make all the difference.

Whatever the difference is, I can't chalk it up to my cranky old man theory. The gal in charge was young and female, and quite pleasant, and she did as well as any cranky old man in creating some custom suits for a very picky customer. So, now I have some gorgeous suits to wear for all those snazzy Olympic-related gigs coming up in the next couple of weeks.

Having nothing better to do, and realizing that most of you haven't seen me at all in a while, I figured I'd put on a little fashion show. Everything you see is brand-gosh-durn new. Those hangings in the background are some of the batiks that Cathryn and Nicholas gave us.

And, I went ahead and put on my new glasses. I've always worn contacts, but Catherine has awakened me to the conveniences of having glasses. So I got some made here, and I must say I like 'em. Still hardly wear them, but they come in handy at times.

Take a look.

Monday, August 4, 2008

china dispatch #15 - chop

It's Monday of Olympics week, and the town is getting ready. I noticed this evening that the air was sort of back to its normal hazy grey, but for the last several days it's been quite wonderful, because all the polluting factories have been either shut off completely or cut down to a tiny percentage of their usual output. So the sky has been blue, and it has had texture, and clouds, and the sun shines, and all that. It's like being in San Antonio or Houston or Dallas. Crazy.

You've no doubt seen the artwork associated with the games. The official emblem is a white figure that could be in action in any one of several possible sports, against a red background.

What you might not know about it is where it comes from culturally. It's a chop. A chop is a cross between a royal seal and a stamp like Marian uses at the library. It's usually made of stone, though sometimes wood and, in royal cases, jade. The character of a person's name is carved into it. Then you just dip it in ink and use it for official documents. (If you have any Chinese art around the house, there's a chance that it'll have the artist's chop somewhere on it, in place of a signature.)

The figure on the Olympic chop is a stylized jing. "Jing" is, of course, the second syllable of "Beijing." Generally, each character is one syllable, and each character signifies one word, though, naturally, sophisticated ideas that would be one word in English are represented by several characters in Chinese. Bei means "north" and jing means "capital." Nanjing or Nanking (as in the Rape of Nanking) was, you guessed it, at one time the southern capital. So, when you say "Beijing" in Chinese you're saying a place-name that, in English, would be something like "Northric."

Here's the word jing written in several fonts, roughly corresponding to Arial, Times Roman, and a couple of scripty fonts:

And here's the Olympic emblem:

I think it's ingenious: a powerful glom of ideas — a character from one of the world's oldest alphabets, an official stamp that echoes centuries of civilization, a human figure of joy and prowess, the word itself signifying that Beijing is indeed the capital of the world for one moment — all brought together in one striking image.